Support Local Journalism. Donate to Cleveland Scene.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Clevelanders First Feared They'd be Labeled Racists in Council Reduction Campaign

Posted By on Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 2:01 PM

click to enlarge Anti-council reduction campaign literature, distributed in West Side Wards. - IMAGE PROVIDED TO SCENE
  • Image provided to Scene
  • Anti-council reduction campaign literature, distributed in West Side Wards.

Questions swirled late last week in the wake of some surprising news: A group which had gathered signatures to place two city council reduction measures on the March ballot was pulling their petitions after reaching an agreement with a coalition of clergy members. Among the most basic questions: What happened?

Word was that Clevelanders First, the grassroots council-reduction group backed financially by Westlake restaurateur Tony George, had been meeting or attempting to meet with city council for more than a month, but that Council President Kevin Kelley hadn't taken the process seriously.

"He was very cavalier about it," Bill Ritter, one of the leaders of Clevelanders First, told Scene Wednesday. "His whole attitude was, 'bring it on.'"

But it was the Cleveland Clergy Coalition, led by former assistant county prosecutor Aaron Phillips, which broached the subject of race. Phillips and his coalition said they feared the ballot measures could potentially lead to an "East Side, West Side split."

Indeed, this was the message presented by Phillips at a press conference Friday, at which the petition withdrawal was announced. Pastor E.T. Caviness echoed the sentiment in comments to ideastream. He said the ballot measures would “cause harm to our city in terms of East and West, black and white, and we did not want that."

Ritter told Scene that he hadn't personally seen evidence that this was the case — the "concern" was purely speculative, and in fact had been contradicted by anecdotal evidence in our own reporting. But there were indications, Ritter said, that council would be running its opposition campaign with explicitly racial overtones, i.e., that the council reduction campaign was racist because it would result in fewer total council members on the city's overwhelmingly black east side. 

Scene had been shown anti-council-reduction literature (see image above) that emphasized Clevelanders First's funding from Tony George, even blurbing Scene's coverage and characterizing the measures as being orchestrated by a "millionaire fat cat."

Ritter said that whether council continued with the Tony George attacks or shifted to calling Clevelanders First racist — historically the trump card in local political battles, opportunistically wielded by no less than Carl Stokes, Dennis Kucinich and George Forbes — commissioning a study on the issue would give the council reduction measures more validity. "The study would be credible and unbiased," Ritter said.

Regardless of the theoretical benefits of a study, Ritter said the fact is the Cleveland Clergy Coalition specifically asked them pursue one. 

"They said it would make them more comfortable, and we didn't want to push back," Ritter said. "The last thing we wanted to do was create divisiveness."

He said that once the study is completed, Clevelanders First intends to present council with the results and ask them to follow its recommendations. Depending on council's response, the group is prepared to launch another citizen initiative. "This issue is not going away," Ritter said.

In response to a Tuesday story about the ballot measures' timeline, Ritter said that the delay in withdrawing the petitions was due in part to unforeseen personal circumstances. He said lawyers were "making sure it's done properly," and he anticipated they'd be withdrawn early-to-mid next week.

"I know that with these things, until the last 'I' is dotted, there's always speculation," he said, "but we're committed to doing what we said we would do."

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.

Tags: , , , , , ,

We’re keeping you informed…
...and it’s what we love to do. From local politics and culture to national news that hits close to home, Scene Magazine has been keeping Cleveland informed for years.

It’s never been more important to support local news sources, especially as we all deal with the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost everything Scene is about -- our stories, our events, our advertisers -- comes down to getting together. With events on hold, and no print distribution for the foreseeable future, every little bit helps.

A free press means accountability and a well-informed public, and we want to keep our unique and independent reporting available for many, many years to come.

If quality journalism is important to you, please consider a donation to Scene. Every reader contribution is valuable and so appreciated, and goes directly to support our coverage of critical issues and neighborhood culture. Thank you.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2020 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 241-7550
Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

Website powered by Foundation